In screenplay and novel writing, the inciting incident is the event that gets the story rolling. It’s the action or decision that introduces the problem that the story’s main character must overcome.
In “Jerry Maguire,” it’s the moment that Jerry writes his manifesto about the need to put people first in the sports agency business. It leads to his firing and he walks away from his power job to start over.
In movies and books, the inciting incident is unmistakable. It’s the moment that calls the protagonist to action and changes their life irrevocably. That’s the thing about fiction—almost every story follows the same arc. There’s background, struggle, and ultimately triumph, with twists and turns along the way. But the story almost always gets resolved, wrapped up in a pretty bow. More often than not the protagonist lives happily ever after, having defeated the villain, gotten the girl, or defused the bomb, just in the nick of time.
Art may imitate life, but real life is, of course, far different. And messier (at least the ending). We’re all characters in a narrative, but unlike in most books and movies, our stories don’t always result in happy endings. Inciting incidents occur all around us but rarely do they lead to real change. Often we miss their meaning altogether.
Other times we recognize their significance but we are unable or unwilling to leverage their transformational power. We have a health scare but do little to improve our lifestyle. We struggle at work but instead of taking the time to understand the cause of our struggles, we plow forward with no real plan to make the future different than the past.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think we’re all in the midst of an unmistakable inciting incident. And in many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with recent social and political unrest, has been far stranger than fiction.
There are two ways to view the struggles we’re enduring: as a call to retreat or to push forward. At some point, in the not too distant future (let’s hope), the fog will lift and we can get back to living life. The question is: Will it be more of the same or something new?
I, like many of you (I’m sure), have struggled in myriad ways during the months of lockdown. I’ve withdrawn more than I should have. I’ve lamented circumstances outside of my control. I’ve relinquished control in ways I didn’t need to.
And I’m ready to turn the chapter. Are you?
The Catalyst for Change Is Upon Us
As the old saying goes, with crisis comes opportunity, and the best way to seize the opportunity of this moment is to use it as fuel to shape a new future.
Life is often spent on autopilot. We often desire change but never make it happen because we wait for some catalyst, some external stimulus to spur us to action. The catalyst has arrived. Will we recognize it for what it is?
The next step is straightforward but not easy. Meaningful change is made possible through clarity of purpose. What do you want out of your post-pandemic life? It’s OK if you don’t have clarity yet. These things take time. And it’s OK if you’re feeling resistance to change—from yourself or others. We all are. Change is hard.
It’s easy to assume that everyone else has it all figured out, and that you’re the only one struggling, grasping, trying to figure out who you are and what you should be doing with your life. It’s OK if today you feel like a bystander in your own life, with someone else setting the agenda. What’s not OK is never retaking control of your circumstances.
Life moves quickly, and risk lurks around every corner. There are lots of valid excuses to not take bold action, to not rewrite your story. So it’s easy to wait. The problem is the excuses won’t go away until you start taking action. Be courageous, because no one is going to grant you permission to live boldly.
And remember this: Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s doing what needs to be done despite the fear. So when you’re struggling, and you get to the point where circumstances feel unbearable, recognize the moment for what it is: a wake-up call wrapped in a bow. A chance to begin anew.
As Confucius explained more than 2,500 years ago: “We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize that we only have one.”
That gnawing feeling inside of you? That’s the real you waiting to come out. When you’re ready—and hopefully you’re ready now—your new life will be waiting for you.
Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.